Adam Scott continues to loom menacingly but American Jordan Spieth and Australians Brett Rumford and Greg Chalmers will take the lead into the final day of the Emirates Australian Open.
Spieth, Rumford and Chalmers all finished the third round at five-under-par; remarkably a fistful of players have hit the five-under mark and Spieth even did so on the first day, but with Jack Nicklaus' remodelled version of The Australian baring nasty teeth in the afternoon winds, nobody could go lower.
World No. 1 Rory McIlroy was among those to suffer from the malaise, starting today's round just a shot from the lead but shooting 76 to almost ruin his chances of winning the title back-to-back. McIlroy is one-over par for the tournament, six shots back and needing one of his rollicking finishes to pull off another victory.
Scott, the 2009 Australian Open champion who is trying to avenge his defeat at the 72nd hole at Royal Sydney last year, had a tough day on the greens but fought doggedly to card a two-under 69. At four-under par, he is well-placed in the second-last group and just a shot from the lead.
The greens baked in the afternoon heat and with the wind whipping out of the east and crosswinds buffeting many holes, the scoring average was 73.6, more than two shots above par. The low number of the day was a 67 posted by Queensland professional Daniel Nisbet, but he had the profound advantage of a 7.35 am tee-off, the first grouping of the day.
Chalmers had begun the day in the lead but quickly gave shots back at the first two holes, only to haul himself back into a tie for the lead when he birdied the 14th. A two-time Open winner, he is not to be underestimated with his brilliant putting stroke — he has had no more than 26 putts in any of his three rounds.
Rumford made an early run with birdies at three of the first five holes before putting up the parachute on the back nine, then joining the lead with a birdie at the 16th. Like Chalmers, he is a fine player who rarely wins the plaudits he deserves because a lot of his best golf has been played overseas.
Spieth, 21, has been profoundly impressive, and he will not mind if it blows tomorrow having grown up playing in the wind in Texas. "I almost prefer it, wind and a very difficult golf course,'' he said.
He had five birdies on a day when the scoring was never going to be low, and with the greens running quickly. "They're a different colour today,'' he said. "They're baked, they're very shiny, they've firmed up significantly and then with this wind, there were putts that were lightning fast.''
Scott and veteran Rod Pampling are in the second-last group, Pampling having pinched the lead at the par-four 10th when he knocked a short iron shot into the hole for an eagle two from 125 metres. Pampling suffered from the five-under malaise and could not hold that number, but he has been in formidable form this week.
Scott needed to make a statement early and with a short iron that tracked the flag at the first, followed by a tap-in birdie, he did so. But while he was climbing the leaderboard his body language suggested severe frustration at his inability to make a putt of substance. It took until the par-four 17th, when he sent a snaking eight-metre bomb into the cup for birdie, for him to have some good fortune with the flat stick.
Ultimately, though, he is right in the hunt, just a shot back, and striking the golf ball well, which is basically a given. It seems remarkable that through nine holes of the first round he was five-over par; he has been the best player in the field since then even if he has failed to make the most of his opportunities.
With the course playing tough the tournament has assumed a United States Open feel, with players grinding out pars and no one able to break it open. There are 13 players within five shots of the lead, and a bunched finish ensues. With big crowds out on the course today, the Open is heading for a sensational finish.